Put your faith in what you most believe in
Two worlds, one family
Trust your heart
Let fate decide
To guide these lives we see!
-Two Worlds (from Disney’s Tarzan)
I wrote this a year ago at the student journalism conference I attended at the request of my employer. It was referenced in my later letter to a former teacher of mine, and explores an idea that had been rattling around in my head for several months before the conference.
A couple years ago I took a first-year university course on “World Religions,” a course which had helped in the shaping of my social understanding. Part of that shaping was the introduction of the term “ethnocentrism” into a personal experience which included a progression of Christian family, Christian school, Christian friends, Christian college, and a fundamentally Christian perspective. At the time, I tended to understand an ethnocentric worldview as one in which one’s own social, cultural, and religious experiences biased an individual against the disparate practices and beliefs of an individual from a different geographic location. An example might be a feeling of superiority at the religious use of peyote by the Huichol people, or at the marginal Hindu practice of drinking cow urine. Yet I had a understanding that “ethnocentrism” was firmly tied to geographic location; it was a term to describe bias against people groups in other lands and on other shores, separated as much by distance as by practice.
It was a term that haunted me recently, during a five-day conference in ——— that was ostensibly a learning opportunity for Canada’s student journalists, and less obviously a 120-hour slice of drunken, profanity-ridden progressiveness. Most of us at the conference were Canadian students in our 20s who shared a generally comparable economic situation and a passion for journalism, yet our obvious similarities only highlighted what I considered to be our blatant ethnocentrisms. We were a group from the same nation and the same culture, so how was it that I could barely relate to many of my fellow conference-attenders, and many of them could barely relate to me? How was it that within the space of a polite conversation we could mutually understand that we embodied two very different camps within a massive ideological struggle, camps so alien that we could hardly empathize with the other position?
There is a myth circulating in our culture that, in general, liberals are Godless and conservatives are stupid. I am not usually a purveyor of myth, but I must say that my own sense of ignorance haunted me during the conference, a feeling of inadequacy that was matched only by my growing revulsion at the actions of the people who surrounded me. I did not understand the questions they asked, could not follow the references they drew from events I did not remember, but only scoff at the consensual mockery that occurred whenever a perspective from the opposing ideological spectrum was mentioned. I remember one session specifically, when an editor from the online Publication Cannabis Culture spent an hour venerating the infamous Marc Emery, while strongly implying that the “alternative media” was probably the only authentic disseminator of truth left in the country. He was angry, and his anger kindled mine, and so by the time he got around to arguing that Marc’s deportation was political inspired, I was already classifying him as that “small, half-baked Dutchman.”*
Needless to say, name-calling is not a productive enterprise, so instead of confronting him as I later confronted another speaker (more on this later), I instead returned to my hotel room to reconstruct some of my perspectives on the world. What I came up with was an “ethnocentrism” which I consider to be inherent to my personality and upbringing.
I come from, and I think most Christian circles are, ethics-oriented societies. We value intelligence, we value knowledge and success, and a certain amount of initiative, but most of all we value what I call “wisdom.” Arguments within my circle are not necessarily won on logic, or even the relative soundness of the respective positions, but instead on one’s ability to maintain respect and personal morality throughout the discussion. In fact, the implication that one side is not arguing in an ethical manner is more incriminating than proving the position is logically invalid, since the ability to formulate and express an eloquent argument is not one of the requirements of Christianity. We admire humble argument, humble submission, and robust relationship, things that I am deeply grateful for, but (at least for me) create resentment against more pragmatic forms of dispute.
Yet I would argue that many of my fellow conference-goers come from what I describe as accomplishment-oriented societies. This is not to say that they lack ethics, but instead that they emphasize being “right” above what they would euphemistically term “being nice”. The strength in this relationship is that it creates a strong, competitive society who become very good at what they do, for success is the road to social respect. The weakness is that those who are considered to be “very good” tend to define the society; their skill gives them an universal influence they may not naturally deserve.
A rather famous journalist by the name of Chris Jones gave a speech on the final night of the conference. Jones writes for Esquire and ESPN, and claims to make something approaching eight bucks a word. Frankly, I would say he’s worth eight bucks a word because the man is brilliant. He spent an hour telling some of the funniest stories I have ever heard, from his experience interviewing Colin Farrell to a historical anecdote about the difficulties of astronaut elimination. Jones is one of the top writers in his field, so, fittingly, he also told a story about an interaction he’d recently had with an old enemy, an enemy who’d come crawling back for some coverage sixteen years after a devastating conflict. Jones recounted the email reply he’d sent, in which he described a disgusting bodily process he rather undergo than interview the recipient of a grudge sixteen years in the making. The applause was massive, for, in a society that celebrates accomplishment above all else; Jones’ success is his shield against criticism. By being to stupid and too weak to stymy Jones’ ridicule, his enemy may indeed be considered to deserve it.
There were a number of questions asked of Jones after his speech, mostly to do with his profession and his various experiences in the field. After the official Q&A I approached Jones quietly and asked the question which had been bothering me for half the night, namely did he regret acting on a sixteen year grudge against a man who had quite possibly matured since their unfortunate encounter in university. Honest to a fault, Jones looked me in the eye and said he didn’t, he wished he did, but he was the kind of person to hold grudges.
It was the wrong answer to give me, the wrong answer to give someone who was not from an accomplishment-oriented society, but it was the truth and I appreciated that. Yet I admit that it shames Jones in my eyes since it reveals a foundational weakness in the pantheon in his accomplishments, and I will never again be able to read his work without thinking of that weakness. I wouldn’t say that I judge him for it exactly, just that it scares me to know that a man as profoundly good at his job as Jones, a man who enjoys such prestige and power in the writing world, makes so dangerous an enemy. I also admit I turned my name-tag around before approaching him, so he would never know the name of the delegate who cared so much about his personal integrity.
There are two outcomes from this ideological struggle that I fear are growing possibilities in our modern times. This first is that those of us who are ethics-based will judge our fellow citizens too harshly, that we will measure them by their own standards and disregard their worth. I was intimidated by the ability of my fellow delegates, and I was tempted to create a balance by imposing my ethical structures upon their behaviours. I was tempted to condemn.
The second outcome is that we withdraw from societies that violate our social expectation. I come from a private Christian high school, and I have seen many of my peers disregard academia as being too corrupt and too intense for their liking. I have seen other friends forced into a compartmentalization of their professional and religious lives, to the point where I wonder what meaning the latter embodies for them. I have seen myself at that conference, shamed by my ignorance and disgusted by the surrounding decadence, tempted to retreat to a mutually affirming social group.
I am trying to find a third option, to reach a balance between the world in which I work and the world in which I worship. I admit that I often resent my peers within the world of newspaper, more than they suspect and more than they deserve. I admit that much of my resentment is a result of the incredibly rigid and intricate ethics system engrained into my worldview.
I admit that I do not expect them to understand, and it might be a cruel blow to my own pride if they did.
Yet I hope that one day I will be able to muster enough grace to combine ethics and accomplishment and not use my personal beliefs as a shield against the success of the Joneses of the world. Perhaps one day I will not have to fight the urge to say “I told you so” when my peers come stumbling in drunk at 3 a.m. with tales of mayhem, or continually envision myself as some sort of neo-martyr amongst the metropolitan savages of a Godless nation.
I wish to be both successful and ethical, productive and respected in both the secular and religious worlds. I wonder, often, if the two worlds are not fast becoming mutually exclusive.
* He was actually fully baked. He admitted this before beginning the seminar.